Imagine your favorite childhood memory. Picture the sights, the sounds, the smells. Think way back to how excited you were and how magical everything seemed. Got it? Good. Then you’ll understand how I feel to be traveling back to Monterey, California.
Like neighboring Carmel-by-the-Sea, Monterey played a big role in my family vacations as a child. But it isn’t just the city itself that stars in my most prominent memories. It’s a particular place right on the waterfront: the Monterey Bay Aquarium on historic Cannery Row.
Once famous for the long line of sardine canneries that featured in American author John Steinbeck’s novels, the street along Monterey’s waterfront has been home to the famous aquarium for the last 30 years. The tinned sardines may be gone, but in their place are giant glass tanks full of other sea creatures.
I arrive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my mother, excited for a trip down memory lane thanks to Visit California‘s arranging tickets for us. But what I don’t anticipate is the flood of childhood memories that comes with my visit. From the cute little sea otters to the beautifully delicate jellyfish, every exhibit in the aquarium brings back the sense of awe and wonder I experienced there as a child.
We start out with the live feedings, watching the otters swim on their backs as they munch on fish and kelp. They are so adorable that I want to take one home.
From there we walk past bright blue tanks of pink jellyfish to watch the feeding at the Open Sea exhibit. The event is one of the most spectacular displays of nature I have ever seen. Hammerhead sharks and giant tuna gulp down masses of squid while tornadoes of small schooling fish make a frenzied rush for krill. It is mesmerizing to watch, and for a moment I am transported back to my childhood.
Further down, we go to the feeding at the Kelp Forest, where a scuba diver feeds an incredibly diverse group of fish in a tall glass tank. While he does, he speaks to us over a loudspeaker, explaining what the fish eat and how they interact.
With the feedings over, my mother and I explore the rest of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We head downstairs to the hands-on exhibits, where I remember touching starfish as a child. But this time I work up the courage to reach into the bat ray tank and touch a passerby, its squishy, slimy wing grazing my fingers as I smile at the memory of being too afraid to do more than look at them as a kid.
We also walk underneath an exhibit with a surging tide, a waterfall from the bay splashing the glass overhead. My mother laughs as she recalls how I used to jump a mile every time the ocean rushed in.
On the other side of the glass, we walk outside to see Monterey Bay in its entirety. A lone seal is perched on a rock just below, and we keep our eyes out for otters among the kelp beds.
Eventually we take our leave of the aquarium and walk along Cannery Row. The street is filled with souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes, and we find our way to a pier to have lunch overlooking the water. The Fish Hopper doesn’t just have great views, either. The crab cakes are the best I’ve ever had.
As I enjoy them, I recall school trips to Monterey for whale watching in the winter months and an afternoon of sea kayaking in Monterey Bay years ago.
Back on the road, my mother and I drive along the coast to Lovers Point, a famous rocky outcropping that used to have our favorite restaurant in Monterey on it. While the dining space is now empty, the bay and its coastal trail are as full of walkers and runners as they ever were. We drive next to them through neighboring Pacific Grove, passing pretty Victorian houses and beautiful beaches as we go.
And then it’s time to turn around and head north to another place redolent of my childhood: Santa Cruz. But as we drive back by Monterey Bay Aquarium, I look out the window, pressing my nose to the glass, and breathe in one last memory from all those years ago. The sights, sounds, and smells are just as fresh in my mind as they were back then, and I am already eager to relive the memory again someday in the future.